November 26, 2008
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
Maria Semple's debut novel, This One Is Mine, surprised me with its cutting humor and satirical streak. After finishing the book, I wasn't surprised to learn of Semple's background as a television writer (notably Arrested Development).
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Former television producer and writer Semple (Arrested Development; Mad About You) bashes Hollywood celebrity, New Age nonsense and struggling relationships in this smart and funny debut."
Maybe the greatest thing about writing a novel happens when you cross over into that trippy realm where everything you see and hear seems to fit eerily into your book:
-Your fifteen year old nephew sends you a CD of his new band, "Hanging With Yoko" and you can't fucking believe it because for two years you've tried to think of the perfect name for an indie band and now you have one.
-You're clearing plates at the end of a dinner party and see that one plate has been wiped clean except for the eight pieces of fried garlic that a guest has meticulously eaten around. And this thrills you because earlier that very afternoon you were writing a scene where a high-minded woman is irrationally critically of someone. So you stop doing the dishes, race to the computer and write, "She didn't trust people who didn't like garlic, especially big fried pieces."
-You overhear someone at Starbucks speaking too loudly into their cell phone that they "bought a Picasso for $17,000... a really small Picasso," and you think, I have a witless character in my book, I'm going to have them say that.
The whole universe seems to be funneling its treasures onto your pages. It's an exhilarating paranoia, one that makes you pity those who aren't writing novels, because they'll never know its pleasure.
This cosmic alignment also happens with songs. You hear one and gasp at how perfectly it fits into your novel, even old songs you've heard a million times but now make you question the space-time continuum because they actually seem to be inspired by characters in your book.
Here's some songs that I had that experience with...
1. "Everything In Its Right Place" Radiohead
The first time I saw Radiohead play this live forever changed the way I heard it. What seemed like a slightly over-produced studio gem, when played live, became a hard-rocking dance anthem. Similarly, the lyrics first struck me as intentionally opaque until I got into writing my character Sally, a diabetic ex-ballerina control freak. When she's first introduced, she's just awoken and is lying in bed going through a mental list of how clean her apartment is. For me, this song will now always be her anthem, the sickening loop of a neurotic trying to convince herself everything's OK.
2. "Sultans of Swing" Dire Straights
My boyfriend once became alarmed when it appeared I started crying for no reason. I explained that I did have a reason: we were driving along Mulholland listening to "Sultans of Swing." This didn't assuage his alarm. The next day, I was trying to write about a woman's fragile mental state. So I transcribed our conversation verbatim.
3. "Tiny Dancer" Elton John
I sat next to someone in a Who concert who started going off on how criminal it is that a lame song like "Tiny Dancer" had become a staple of classic rock radio. A week later, I heard "Tiny Dancer" three times on classic rock radio. So this guy actually had a point. I gave his thought to a character in my book. Oh, the character is a complete tool.
4. "Enter Sandman" Metallica
In my book, the first time we meet the husband-- who manages Metallica-- he sits down at his computer and serenades his gold stocks to the tune of rock songs. (It's complicated, read the book.) I had randomly assigned one of the stocks the symbol X-N-I. So I have him singing, "X-N-I, X-N-I, take my hand, off to never never land...." Come one, do you really want me to believe James & Lars didn't have that stock symbol in mind when they wrote those lyrics?
5. "Temptation" New Order and Moby
I heard this song a hundred times in the eighties and never thought much about it. Twenty years later, when I was in the thick of writing my first draft, I went to a Moby concert where he performed a cover of it and it just about killed me. In my book, all the characters are trying to possess people instead of love them. And somehow, this song sums up to the pain of that struggle. I'm embarrassed to say it shows as having been over 600 times on my iTunes.
6. "Rhinoceros" Smashing Pumpkins
If every song began slow and interesting, then slowly built and got better and more complex until it busted into glorious chaos, I'd listen to more music than I do now. This song, by Smashing Pumpkins, is a great example of such a thing. At the end of my novel, the control-freak ballerina visits a junkie in the hospital who's dying of Hep C. He's asleep and then suddenly opens his jaundiced yellow eyes. The climactic lyrics of "Rhinoceros" seem written for that moment:
Open your eyes
To these mustard eyes.
OK: That's that's what I thought the lyrics said until I googled it five seconds ago. Apparently the lyrics are, "Open your eyes/ To these I must lie." Oh well, I guess that just makes my point of living in a fatasy world where every song you hear seems written for your book.
7. "Finishing the Hat" Stephen Sondheim
This song, from the musical Sunday in the Park With George, has long been considered to be the seminal song about being an artist. In it, the painter George Seurat has just dumped his pregnant girlfriend, alienated his friends and isolated himself from his peers all because he's so obsessed with painting a hat just right. I never really got the song. But then, during the copy-editing process, I was in New York and saw a revival of Sunday in the Park. When George has driven everyone he loves out of his life, he stands alone and sings the last line of the song:
Look I've made a hat
Where there never was a hat
That's all there is to say about writing a novel. Because you're written a fucking book!!! Which is nothing, and everything.
8. "Now/Soon/Later" from The Little Night Music cast album.
Okay, I can't leave with just one Stephen Sondheim song. Let's just say that I had 300 pages to capture the complexity of marriage and longing, and I couldn't come close to accomplishing what Sondheim does in one song.
Maria Semple and This One Is Mine links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)